For years now birds visiting our courtyard in Richmond have taken advantage of feeders, baths and, if the need demands, nesting boxes. Elsewhere, gardeners with more space have built insect hotels, left trees rotting where they fell and piled up logs for needy amphibians.
Of the various schemes, one of the most intriguing is the use of the dead hedge, which we first saw in a nearby park several years ago and which has been tantalising us ever since. This blog tells how we have now built one in Brittany and how its creation had repercussions including the repeated emergence of one of my favourite childhood nursery rhymes.
In Anglo-Saxon England, farmers would pen in their animals with dead hedges. By chance such hedges also served as ‘walls’ in which all manner of wildlife could build their homes. Making these hedges has always been quick and easy: hammer two parallel rows of stakes into the ground; interweave long supple branches between the stakes of each row to make two screens; fill the space between the screens with thin branches, twigs and leaves. Dead hedges can be any length; the one we built is around two metres (see illustration).
Our dead hedge was very much the product of happenstance. Land in France is peppered with yellow ‘bornes’ that mark out boundaries. They are made out of metal poles, concrete blocks or plastic ‘flags’ and each is firmly fixed in the ground. To serve their purpose, they should remain visible rather than hidden under branches or undergrowth. Earlier this summer our new next-door neighbour asked where he might find the borne delimiting the boundary between us at the bottom of our two gardens. It was, he assumed, hidden by overhanging branches of the willows growing on our land. While we are not legally bound to reveal the borne, and indeed it was just about visible, if we chopped down the offending branches some would be ideal for building a dead hedge. Next day clearing began.
Using cut branches of varying thicknesses, Rohan and I took around four hours to build the sides of our dead hedge and then fill it in. To us, it seemed, the perfect multi-storey home for insects, small birds, reptiles and possibly the occasional hedgehog. But the project demanded so much more than simply the construction. It took us two days to cut down the branches around the borne and then to drag them to the middle of the adjoining field for sorting. It took another day to cut the larger branches – some as thick as my upper arm – into logs for firewood and then gather them up into piles. For this, help came from a friend with a chain saw and while he was with us he offered to saw up a moribund palm tree in our garden which, inevitably meant more wood for gathering and storing.
But storing firewood requires careful management and in Tréguennec I work on a three year cycle. For the cycle to be achieved, the new logs had to be neatly arranged in an ‘empty’ section of our wood shed. In the end it took two days to clear a space for the new wood, collect up the logs piled up around the garden and then stack them up to be ready for Christmas 2023.
One of the oddest things in all this was that as I worked a particular nursery rhyme came into my head and just wouldn’t let up. ‘The House that Jack Built’ is a cumulative tale so with each verse a new line is added. The odd thing about this rhyme is that it tells nothing about the subject of the title – the house – but describes how the house is linked to other people or animals. So, for example, it’s eighth verse goes: ‘This is the man all tatter’d and torn, that kissed the maiden all forlorn, that milk’d the cow with the crumpled horn, that tossed the dog that worried the cat, that kill’d the rat that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Jack built.’
At first, the reason why the rhyme entered, then echoed in my head was a mystery. Clearly my brain had discovered a link and I can only suppose that it saw a parallel between, on the one hand a nursery rhyme that tells of the things that happened in and around Jack’s house but nothing about the house itself, and on the other hand how much of our week’s hard work had little directly to do with four hours building a house for wildlife.
I had never before realised the quirky nature of the nursery rhyme about Jack’s house – isn’t the brain ingenious?
The illustration shows the two-metre stretch of dead hedge that we built at the bottom of our garden.
For helping write this blog, I would like to thank Rohan and Vivien.